The Daring 25: Technology Visionaries

Produced with  Wired

Cadillac is passionate about innovations that drive us forward, so we partnered with five Conde Nast publications to discover individuals who use their talents to do the same. We asked the editors of Vanity Fair, Wired, Architectural Digest, Bon Appétit and GQ who they found most daring in 2016.

The Daring 25 are innovators, creators and pioneers who are trailblazing in their fields. These impressive individuals and companies stand out in the industries of entertainment, technology, design, food, and style, and represent the best of those who challenge the status quo.

These five individuals and companies are harnessing the power of tech to make impactful and essential differences the world.

ONE: REFUGEES UNITED – DAVID AND CHRISTOPHER MIKKELSEN

NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION/USING TECHNOLOGY TO CONNECT REFUGEES AND DISPLACED PERSONS TO FRIENDS AND FAMILY

According to David and Christopher Mikkelsen, ignorance isn’t bliss—it’s a blessing. At least, that’s how the Danish brothers viewed it when it came to founding Refugees United, or REFUNITE, a nonprofit firm that helps refugees and internally displaced persons search for their loved ones via online and mobile solutions.

“If we had known anything about technology and about aid organizations, maybe we would have been discouraged,” says David. “Maybe we never would have gone down this road to begin with.”

The road the Mikkelsens followed led them to create a mobile- and Web-based platform that’s allowed nearly half a million displaced persons to reconnect with relatives. REFUNITE has reunited an estimated 150 families per month and currently works with the Red Cross, the Clinton Global Initiative, Facebook, and several major worldwide mobile carriers. “Being in a situation where we were young with a lot of passion and compassion for other humans, we did it,” says David. “Do I truly think we would have gone down this road if we had known better? Probably not.”

 

“We started out saying, ‘We need a Google for refugees,’” says David. “You have millions of people who can’t find their families.” ”
David Mikkelsen

REFUNITE was officially founded in 2008 after David and Christopher helped a young Afghan refugee reconnect with his family. During the search process, the Mikkelsens discovered that family tracing was practically nonexistent at the time and lacked cross-border, collaborative technology. There was no digital database that housed names of missing persons or families. In fact, embassies often tracked refugees with written forms.

“We started out saying, ‘We need a Google for refugees,’” says David. “You have millions of people who can’t find their families.” Originating in a small studio apartment (the headquarters are currently located in Copenhagen, Denmark, with a technology development lab in Nairobi, Kenya), Christopher says they “didn’t know if we had the cash for it, we didn’t know if we had the talent for it. But taking the plunge and going for it seemed to be a radical win and was a driver for us.”

 

The Mikkelsens will continue to push for technology to take a greater part in human and family tracing.

The Mikkelsens say inspiration for their work comes from Robert Kennedy and his political standpoints (“My all-time favorite book is still To Seek a Newer World,” says David) along with their parents (“We don’t come from a lot of wealth, but we had a lot of family structure,” says Christopher). The families they assist on a daily basis give them further perspective.

“No matter how f—’d up a situation we’ve been in, when guns have been shot outside your room, when you’ve been arrested and robbed blind, all these things, they don’t even compare to what most of the people we’re helping have gone through,” David says. “A lot of them have seen most of their family wiped out and still, to see them push on, is amazing. I have never been in a situation like that, but I’m not sure if I could go on. The resilience is amazing.”

Over half a million refugees are registered on REFUNITE’s platform, with that number increasing steadily, particularly given the recent Syrian refugee crisis displacing residents of the country to other parts of Europe and abroad. The Mikkelsens will continue to push for technology to take a greater part in human and family tracing. “Here is the tip of the iceberg,” David says. He and his brother may not have known what they were getting into when they started down this road, but they’re clearly determined to see the journey through.

TWO: LEILA JANAH

HUMANITARIAN ENTREPRENEUR/HELPING THE WORLD’S POOR EARN A LIVING WAGE THROUGH TECHNICAL JOBS AND TRAINING

Shortly after WWII, Leila Janah’s grandmother set out on an epic hitchhiking journey. Starting with the equivalent of just $5 in an era when there were no cell phones or high-speed trains, she spent four years traveling from North Africa through the Arabian peninsula and across the Middle East. She ended up in Calcutta, eventually settling down with Janah’s grandfather and opening an art ceramics studio.

“She had a motto, ‘Trust the world,’ ” Janah says. “That’s what daring is to me, to trust the world.”

Janah has channeled her grandmother’s global calling into a nonprofit, Samasource, a company that connects tech jobs to poor and underserved communities. A spin-off, Samaschool, educates low-wage earners for higher paying opportunities in technology. Both have helped redefine how big businesses outsource skilled jobs and have given hope and purpose to the most disparate populations.

“We give work to people who have been left out systematically by the formal economy, both by the U.S. and regions like northern Uganda and rural India and slums of Nairobi,” Janah explains.

Samasource has helped place more than 7,500 people around the world into jobs and trained thousands of others for high-tech work. Positions from data management to customer service are offered through Samasource for companies including Google, Walmart, eBay, and Getty Images. “We now have moved more than 7,500 people on average from $2 a day to $8 a day,” says Janah. “That’s household income, and benefits 30,000 people when you include their families.”

“The root cause of our big problems—sex trafficking, childhood malnutrition, drug abuse—are rooted in poverty. The root solution is job creation. ”
Leila Janah

Janah, who was born in the U.S. after her parents emigrated here from India, started working as a management consultant following her graduation from Harvard. She had an epiphany after a work trip to Mumbai and decided to start Samasource. “It’s one thing to hire people from middle-class families and another to hire people from rural Uganda,” she says. The story behind the numbers is what’s most fulfilling to the nonprofit founder. “We have people who used to eat sugar cane as their primary calorie source in the slum, who now have proper meals,” says Janah. “Before and after means [going from] living in the slums and being under constant stress to living in an apartment building, feeding your family, sending your kids to a nice school.” Janah relates that 90 percent of Samasource workers stay out of poverty after they leave the program. “We’re permanently moving people out of poverty for the rest of their lives.”

The results don’t arrive without overcoming obstacles. “Our workers have challenges, like trauma in their background,” says Janah. “They have had to walk across borders to Kenya from Sudan. A few of our Uganda employees were abducted during the civil war.”

Another issue, says Janah, is connectivity: “Once, a ship dropped an anchor on a fiber-optic cable near Kenya and all of the Internet went down. We were working on a contract with Google, and imagine telling Google what happened. It was like the dog ate my homework.”

Janah’s latest venture is an eco-friendly cosmetics company, Laxmi, which produces consciously sourced beauty products and employs low-income women in Uganda at a fair wage. She hopes both Samasource and Laxmi act as examples of how business can make an impact on poverty beyond simply writing checks. “Corporations donating 1 percent of their profits is so old school,” says Janah. “For me, the most powerful form of impact is giving work. The root cause of our big problems—sex trafficking, childhood malnutrition, drug abuse—are rooted in poverty. The root solution is job creation. That’s my life’s work.”

THREE: MOXIE MARLINSPIKE

COMPUTER PROGRAMMER/DEVELOPING SOFTWARE TO ENSURE DIGITAL COMMUNICATION STAYS SECURE—NO MATTER WHO’S SENDING OR RECEIVING

Moxie Marlinspike calls his day-to-day life, which mostly involves being glued to a computer, pretty boring. “When I think about daring things, they involve an amount of risk,” he says. “Working in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day isn’t that risky.”

That depends on how you look at it. Marlinspike’s programming specialty—providing an encryption software for private and secure communication—has put him at the red-hot center of the debate on the individual’s right to privacy in the digital age and has drawn the not always comfortable attention of government agencies. In the process, he has also become one of the most sought-after computer security specialists in the world.

After a stint at several tech firms during the late-’90s boom, Marlinspike (which may or may not be his real name) worked with encryption software company Whisper Systems, which produced encrypted SMS apps that allowed text messages and voice calls to be sent securely. In 2011, Whisper Systems was acquired by Twitter, and Marlinspike became its head of cyber security. After some years there, he left to create Open Whisper Systems, which helps people send and receive communications—texts, emails, or otherwise—securely. Facebook’s messaging service WhatsApp has used software by Open Whisper to encrypt messages on its platform. Open Whisper also produces a secure messaging app, Signal.

“No one wants their conversations to be public,” Marlinspike says. “From Sony execs to celebs who’ve taken nude photos of themselves and sent them to others, their expectation is that they’re safe on their phone.” But, he says, “It’s not possible.” The only thing that does work, says Marlinspike, is securing not the device but the information itself. “That’s the thing that brings people’s expectation in line with reality—that you can engage in correspondence, and the only one to see it is the one you sent it to.”

“No one wants their conversations to be public.”
Moxie Marlinspike

While his technology helps keep private messages among the general public private, it also potentially enables anyone—including terrorists—to send information without anyone knowing. It’s a scary and frustrating concept for national governments that have tried to fight back. The issue came to a head after the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack, where the FBI tried to force Apple to unlock the cell phones of the attackers. The tech giant refused, citing the privacy rights of its millions of other users. A slippery slope, Apple argued. Marlinspike agreed.

“When Apple tries to protect your phone, they’re trying to protect your info,” he says. “The side effect means that no one can [access your information], including an unauthorized party, including the FBI. Apple’s intention is not to impede the FBI, it’s to meet the customer’s needs.”

Marlinspike argues a world where law enforcement can be all knowing isn’t conducive for social change. Imagine if the government knew you were about to break a law before you broke it. People wouldn’t be able to change things that were once outlawed, like recreational marijuana use or same-sex marriage. “These are the outcome of a democratic process, but never would have been possible if people hadn’t been able to break the law.”

Interestingly, the San Francisco Police Department has been looking at using Signal, and Marlinspike says he would have no issue with that. As for making software specifically for government use, no matter the purpose? Right now, he’ll pass. “I have no interest in working with the government,” he says.

FOUR: TRACY CHOU

SOFTWARE ENGINEER/ HOLDING TECH FIRMS ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR LACK OF DIVERSITY-AND HELPING THEM FIND SOLUTIONS

Tracy Chou has been a vocal advocate in addressing low representation of women in technology companies and pressuring major tech firms, including her own employer, to reveal statistics about the composition of their workforces. She’s demanded firms disclose the number of female employees at their companies—no matter how dismal those figures may be—and pushed them to improve the number of women and minorities in their high-tech ranks.racy Chou has been heralded as one of Silicon Valley’s most talented software engineers, most recently at the photo-sharing site Pinterest. But her bigger achievement may be this: Chou has not only broken through the glass ceiling—she has fought to bring other women through with her.

By demanding that the tech industry improve diversity among staff, Chou believes, as she wrote in a 2014 Medium.com essay, that “The quality, relevance, and impact of the products and services output by the technology sector can only be improved by having the people who are building them be demographically representative of the people who are using them.”

“The way I think about what propels me … is that I have been given so many opportunities. I have to make use of them, of all the privilege I have,” says Chou. “Things like pushing the tech industry to be more transparent about diversity, it was risky in the fact it was an uncomfortable conversation about sensitive issues, and there’s often the pretty high likelihood of pushback or negative repercussions. But it’s just something I felt was important to do and I was well-situated to do it, coming from inside the industry and having a résumé and credibility that would speak to other people within the industry.”

Chou was born and raised in Silicon Valley and studied at Stanford. She interned at Google, Facebook, and Rocket Fuel, and worked at Quora as one of its first four employees before eventually moving to Pinterest.

“My hope is in 10, 20 years out, we don’t have to be having conversations about diversity anymore.”
Tracy Chou

She credits the social service for being supportive of her fight for diversity and transparency in tech. “They really believed in my efforts and were a huge accelerant of them. It was very powerful that I had the Pinterest name behind me,” Chou says.

Not everyone has cheered her on in her cause, which has included urging technology companies such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to release diversity reports. “People have questioned my commitment to the issues. I’ve had a number of people say, ‘Oh, this will be so great for your career,’ or ‘You’re just doing this because it’ll be for you to gain influence within the organization or gain power.’ That hurts to get that kind of feedback.”

She hasn’t let it discourage her. In May, Chou, along with seven other women within the tech space, established Project Include, a consultancy for CEOs and management of early to mid-stage tech start-ups to help their companies be more diverse. Chou believes that is where the most change and broadest impact is possible.

Additionally, the tech darling has made another bold move: in May, she stepped down from her role at Pinterest, where she’s worked since 2011 and was one of the first 15 employees, to start her own firm. “It will be a tech company,” she hints. “But not competitive with Pinterest.” While the world will have to wait to see—officially—what Chou’s new start-up will be, she did allude to what her future holds: “things that have a social impact and address social inequality.” The fight for equal representation, she feels, will be a long one.

“There will be some change,” she says. “I don’t think we’ll reach 50-50 male-female or a better representation of minorities right now.” But she remains somewhat optimistic: “My hope is in 10, 20 years out, we don’t have to be having conversations about diversity anymore.”

FIVE: ANDY WALSHE

HIGH PERFORMANCE TRAINER/PREPARING ATHLETES TO ACHIEVE SUPERHUMAN FEATS USING SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

When athletes have dreams of free jumping to earth from the edges of space, there’s only one guy to call to prepare them to do it—Andy Walshe. The director of high performance for Red Bull’s athlete program has been training mountain bikers, race car drivers, surfers, and skiers for death-defying stunts for nearly a decade. Their ranks include BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, who in 2012 completed the longest free jump in history at 127,892 feet above the earth.

Walshe oversaw a team of physiologists, nutritionists, and psychologists who trained Baumgartner for the world record feat. Among the physical and psychological challenges the former Austrian military member needed to overcome: claustrophobia in his custom pressurized suit. After seven years of research and multiple training jumps and in spite of unpredictable factors like weather and wind, Baumgartner completed the mission.

“What I challenge myself to do is never say never in the first conversation.”
Andy Walshe

Part of Walshe’s job is assessing and minimizing the risks involved in these stunts, but he weighs all of the options before saying no to anything. “What I challenge myself to do is never say never in the first conversation,” says Walshe, “Even though internally I’m saying, ‘Are you out of your f—’ing mind?’”

Recently, Walshe has been focusing his research on super creatives—thought leaders, artists, musicians, poets, and others who have achieved greatness in their field. He’s kicked off a program called “Hacking Creativity,” billed as “the largest empirical study of creative style.”

 

Walshe hopes to apply his research to other "super creative" fields like art, music and poetry.

By understanding what drives these masters of the arts, Walshe hopes he can apply those findings to help others achieve greatness—from composers to BASE jumpers. His goal is to measure what can’t easily be measured: “integrity, courage, humility, gratitude, grace, these things which seem to capture an essence of individuals.”

Meanwhile, the man in charge of preparing dreamers to fly from the moon gets his own adrenaline rush from a more down-to-earth pursuit: chasing after his 5-year-old twin girls. “Watching their eyes and bodies light up and do things they didn’t think they could do are some of the most exciting times,” he says. “If you had to ask me what the biggest challenge in my life is, it’s those two.”

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